Friday, June 6, 2008

The Basics of Mystery Shopping: It's just shopping, right?

The more I perform mystery shops, learn about them, talk to others and compare the business model of the shopper against other industries, the more I discover it is a lot like being a private investigator. There is a lot of legwork, a lot of waiting, an intense but brief episode of investigating, then a whole lot of paperwork. As a matter of fact, mystery shoppers in some states are required to hold private investigator's licenses!

From the ground up, here's what the process looks like to a shopper.

Legwork Mystery shopping companies don't know who I am until I apply with them, so I get a list (many listings are available for free, do not pay for one!) of companies and begin the application process. Most are done online, a handful require applications and copies of certain documents to be mailed or faxed to their office. Each application takes about a half hour,
but I only need to apply with each company once.

About 30% of the companies with which I am on file send me emails when an assignment in my area becomes available. But, it is a very competitive field, and the early shopper gets the shop, so I rarely wait to be contacted. Every morning, I browse the job boards of my top 25 companies—the ones I work for most often. That takes at least an hour each morning, sometimes more, depending on the speed of my internet connection and number of job listings that day. I will apply for assignments that meet my available times, and wait to hear back from the schedulers.

Waiting It can take a scheduler a week to get back to me about shops for which I've applied, but within my "top 25," I have chosen to work with schedulers who are prompt in answering their emails. When I receive confirmation of an assignment, I enter the information into a database I
keep of all my assignments. It holds information on all my assignments upcoming and completed for a variety of uses. I also enter the assignment details into my cell phone (and set a reminder) and write it on my family's calendar.

Investigating Time to do the shop itself!

Paperwork I go back to my database and enter the specifics about each shop I've completed, then file my paperwork with the mystery shopping company who assigned me while the details are fresh in my mind. More and more companies are requiring completed surveys within 12 hours of an assignment's completion, and I've seen a couple companies requiring a two-hour turnaround! I am very wary of choosing those faster turnaround jobs. One ill-timed traffic jam and I have sullied my reputation. Receipts get scanned and faxed or emailed, the completed surveys are filed and kept (some companies request completed surveys and receipts be kept for up to six months) and equipment recalibrated. I like to calibrate my scales and thermometers and replace batteries after a job rather than waiting until just before a job to discover a problem.

When my paychecks roll in, I celebrate each with a tiny "YAY!" then do the necessary paperwork to meet the IRS' rigorous standards for self-employment. All mystery shopping income is taxable, whether you receive a statement of earnings from a mystery shopping company or keep your own records. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that only income above a certain level is taxable. That's one expensive audit!

So you see, being a mystery shopper is much more than just shopping. The assignment itself is just one small but important part of the process.


Chris said...

With so many mystery shopping scams out there, I decided to put together a list of companies that are legitimate at FreeMysteryShopping.Info. Hope your find it helpful!

Shopgirl said...

Thanks Chris! I do appreciate it!

Readers, this is a pretty good resource, but remember: do your own legwork, too!